07/01/2013 10:35 EDT | Updated 08/31/2013 05:12 EDT

Change Maker: Farm Radio International Reaches 39 Million Farmers

In Ada, a small district 200 kilometres east of Ghana's capital city, Accra, village meetings broke down in a hail of accusations. Fistfights erupted in the streets. Tomato farmers and goat herders were at each other's throats. Into this minefield walked Isaac Djabelety, a station manager with Farm Radio International.


Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of Free The Children and Me to We, check in with some of their favourite actors, authors, singers and activists to find out how they are changing the world.

In Ada, a small district 200 kilometres east of Ghana's capital city, Accra, village meetings broke down in a hail of accusations and hurled threats. Fistfights erupted in the streets. The local court was backed up with cases of assault and property damage. It was not a happy place.

Vegetables like tomatoes and peppers are popular crops in that part of Ghana. With two crops a year, the vegetables provided nutritious food for the farmer's family, and the surplus could be sold for good income allowing impoverished families to send their children to school.

However, the other major agricultural activity in the region is raising goats. The goat herders allowed their animals to roam free, so many a tomato farmer woke up in the morning to find his neighbour's goats enjoying breakfast in his fields. The two farming factions were at each other's throats. Into this minefield walked Isaac Djabelety, a station manager with Farm Radio International.

In farm fields across Canada crops are ripening under the warm summer sun, and Canadians know they can look forward to a rich harvest come the fall thanks to Canadian farmers who employ the most up-to-date agricultural techniques. In other parts of the world, however, farmers still struggle to grow enough to feed their families, let alone sell for income. Farm Radio International is a Canadian organization that uses radio to teach modern farming techniques to more than 39 million farmers in 38 countries across Africa.

George Atkins, a well-known Canadian CBC radio personality since the 1950s, realized on a trip to Zambia in 1975 that small-scale African farmers could benefit from learning more efficient and sustainable agriculture methods, and the best way to impart that information was via radio. So in 1979 he founded Farm Radio International.

Farm Radio works by partnering with local radio stations. An FRI production team like Djabelety's consults local farmers to learn their needs and the challenges they face. The team then does research on viable and affordable solutions, and develops a series of tailor-made radio programs that teach the solutions to farmers. Throughout the run of the campaign, the production team follows up with the farmers to find out if they are getting what they need. Many programs now include a call-in segment that allows farmers to ask questions, offer feedback, and share successes.

When Djabelety set up his first face-to-face meeting to consult with farmers in Ada, he expected to hear them ask about better seeds or affordable fertilizers. Instead, the meeting erupted into chaos as tomato farmers screamed about their lost crops, and goat herders accused the tomato farmers of trying to poison their animals.

Undaunted, Djabelety and his production team tackled the problem of tomato versus goat. The obvious solution was to pen the goats. Herders had avoided pens because of the cost. With research, Djabelety discovered a livestock pen design that could be built easily and cheaply with local materials. He and his team then drafted scripts and produced a series of radio shows with elements like instructional descriptions on how to make the pens, and tips for keeping animals in pens. They even produced mini-drama segments with actors playing out a scene of a man and a woman meeting in the marketplace and extolling the virtues of penning animals. Call-in segments during the shows gave farmers a chance to phone and ask questions, or share their own successes.

Studies by FRI have found that two thirds of farmers in Africa listen to farm radio programs regularly, and one in five will adopt new farm practices they hear about on the radio.

In Ada, as the radio campaign ran over the course of a couple of months, more and more goat herders began building pens for their animals until, by the end of the campaign, 87 per cent had switched to penning their goats.

After the campaign, however, Djabelety learned from local farmers that penning the goats had created a new problem: Since their goats were now concentrated in one place, the herders suddenly had piles of manure to deal with. So Djabelety and his team developed a new campaign: how to turn goat manure into rich fertilizer that could be sold to tomato growers. It was a win-win!

Meanwhile, peace has mostly returned to Ada. Without so many goats getting into the tomatoes, police report the number of arguments ending up in the local court has dropped by two thirds.

People often equate development work with going in and doing work for communities in need--building wells and building schools. However in many cases, those communities are perfectly capable of helping themselves. It's just a matter of getting them the information they need.

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded the international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit